When New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh swept into office last fall, many hailed their elections as the beginning of a new liberal approach to executive governance.
Now, they are taking their gospel to cities across the nation. The two will head a year-long task force to find ways to combat what they see as the rising tide of inequality across the United States.
The Obama administration and national Democratic leaders have made it an election-year priority, as well, though with little to show for it. So many American mayors are beginning to look to use their executive powers to raise the minimum wage, increase the availability of affordable housing, and establish universal pre-Kindergarten.
“We’re not asking for help in fighting inequality out of some sense of local privilege,” Mayor de Blasio said Sunday in announcing the effort at the annual meeting of the US Conference of Mayors in Dallas. “We’re doing it because not only do we have to solve the problems of our people, we have to help this nation avert the crisis that will come if we don’t address these problems and if our cities remain unsupported, since we are more and more the economic engines and core for this country.”
Participating mayors will gather for the first time in August at Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence in Manhattan, to discuss how they can use budget decisions, regulatory controls, and other levers of power to advance their goals of greater social and economic equality.
On the national stage, President Obama is already pressing the limits of his executive power to push push his agenda. Bypassing a gridlocked Congress, he has barred federal contractors from discriminating against gay people and instituted tighter limits on carbon emissions. The mayoral task force will be exploring similar uses of executive power on a local level.
“If our federal partners or our state partners aren't acting quickly enough, we will act,” de Blasio said.
The New York mayor rode to a landslide victory last November, trumpeting a message of income inequality through his “tale of two cities” slogan. Mayor Walsh had been a labor leader and long-time lunch pail worker champion before taking Boston’s highest office.
"This is a national problem, but we feel the impact of income inequality particularly in Boston's neighborhoods,” said Mayor Walsh in a statement. “This inequality makes it difficult to sustain the strong workforce, active consumer base, and vibrant civic life that every city needs for lasting growth.”
Like national Democrats, city mayors say raising the minimum wage will be a priority.
As of June, 22 states and the District of Columbia had already raised their minimum wages above the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. Earlier this month, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to more than double the federal standard, raising the citywide minimum to $15 an hour – the highest in the nation. San Francisco is expected to do the same.
De Blasio wants to raise New York City’s municipal minimum wage to $13, but he needs the state legislature’s and governor’s approval – highlighting the kind of political finesse the participants of mayoral task force will try to incorporate into their national goals. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), up for reelection this year, has proposed re-raising the state minimum to $10 an hour and allowing municipalities to raise it as high as $13.
But state legislatures in more conservative states have thwarted such efforts, holding that business-friendly policies that promote jobs and private investment do more to help bring low income residents out of poverty. When labor groups tried to raise the city minimum in Oklahoma City, the state legislature passed a law forbidding such local decision making, according to The New York Times.
“The best thing we can really do for a family that’s struggling is create a better job or a new job,” said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, one of the few Republican mayors at the conference in Dallas. He said his city with a population of 600,000 was addressing inequality in other ways, such as a special sales tax to rebuild its aging school buildings.